ENGAGEMENTS BY Chidi Amuta
As a political destination, Rivers State never ceases to excite and intrigue. It is capable of infinite political possibilities and great drama. In just one day this past week, the state gravitated from order to near anarchy and back into tenuous normalcy. Any one who has studied its political history in recent times will testify to this curious habit of political brinkmanship and perennial existential uncertainty.
On Tuesday, the state degenerated into near anarchy. A mysterious fire at the state House of Assembly necessitated a site visit by the Governor, Mr. Siminalayi Fubara. Instead of the usual fanfare that usually accompanies gubernatorial visits, the governor met a rude shock. He met a mob of thugs and irate policemen. He was greeted with tear gas smoke and water cannons. One report said a police personnel may have fired live shots in the direction of the governor. The governor later alleged the shot was fired at him. In the confusion, it was uncertain whose thugs and mobs were in charge at the troubled House of Assembly. The larger Port Harcourt city did not fare any better as street mobs quickly built up as rival protests took to the streets in solidarity with their choice of patrons and principals.
It has since been revealed that that the political division at the bottom of the confusion is essentially that between the incumbent governor and his immediate past predecessor, Mr. Nyesom Wike, now Minister of the Federal Capital Territory(FCT).
As yet, no one knows the exact bone of contention but from all that has been revealed, there seems to be a disagreement between Mr. Wike and Mr. Fubara whom he )Wike) supported into office. There is the usual hearsay about control of the state government and other big money related issues that are not yet supported by concrete evidence.
In the interim, order and governance in the state have been disrupted. There have been moves and counter moves by state legislators to change the leadership of the state House of Assembly with the aim of either effecting an impeachment of the governor or obstructing same.
In just one day of confusion, protests and brawls, the political countenance of the state had become disfigured. There was a clear and a speedy descent into lawlessness and anarchy. A governor was struggling for political survival. A state legislature battled to find coherence and continued relevance. The state administration was in coma as the people were torn between joining the swelling street mobs and going on with their lives. It was at this point that the gladiators behind the fast descent into anarchy took off their masks.
Governor Fubara and his supporters have since openly accused Mr. Nyesom Wike of being behind the attempted ‘coup’ to oust a governor who has spent less than six months in office. Mr. Wike, a man not known for hiding his political gloves, stepped forward literally to own the crisis. He has since disclosed that he is out to protect and defend his political base.
A cross section of Rivers elders worked the phones to get Mr. Wike and the governor to call a truce while they looked into the crisis. On his part, President Bola Tinubu summoned the two men to Aso Rock to cobble some appearance of a resolution. A combination of presidential intervention and the gravity of Rivers elders has restored some semblance of peace. The hope is that the governor may not be impeached just yet. But the lines of the battle have been clearly defined.
This week’s brief rehearsal in anarchy is familiar in Rivers State. A similar face off took place nine years ago at precisely the same location, the state House of Assembly. In the run up to the 2015 presidential elections, rival political forces broke into an open weaponized brawl in the chambers of the State House of Assembly. Rival groups of legislators hurled chairs at each other. Some thugs invited themselves into what became a free for all fight. A faction of the police was on hand but in a partisan anti-governor formation. A few heads were broken, some ribs cracked and lungs filled with tear gas.
That earlier face off was between forces based in Abuja, namely Mr. Nyesom Wike, then Minister of State for Education, actively supported by then First Lady, Patience Jonathan, had perfected a plot to impeach then governor, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi. All hell was let loose but the face off took the state government as its prime casualty.
The anarchic situation persisted until after the elections which saw Mr. Wike as the successor governor to Mr. Rotimi Amaechi in the state. Amaechi moved up to join the Buhari wagon at the federal level while Mr. Wike assumed the throne as virtual Emperor of Rivers State. His rule and reign lasted the whole of eight years during which his word was the only law in the state. He proceeded to bluff, abuse, insult and generally lord it over the entire Rivers population unchallenged.
Nearly a decade afterwards, the pattern of alignments and conflicting allegiances may be different. The key dramatis personae may have altered slightly. Only two constants remain. Mr. Nyesom Wike remains a key player. His controversial method of gunboat ‘shoot at sight’ politics is the playbook of choice. His imperial disposition is the dominant political method and philosophy. No political space is enough to accommodate Mr. Wike and anyone else. It is him and him alone with barely enough room for his minions and his orchestra of praise singers.
The impact on the administration and security of the state remains largely the same. A government method devoid of accountability, dialogue and camaraderie is the vogue. In this emerging imperial school of government and politics, there is only one mode of communication: a long boring monologue of imperial pronouncements and undigested howls from the throne. This is imperial politics in open display under the guise of a democracy.
Beneath the prosaic drama of what transpired in Rivers in the week, certain inconvenient truths have emerged. Governor Fubara is embattled by Mr. Wike’s suffocating embrace as his political Godfather. On his part, Mr. Wike sees Fubara’s gasp for fresh air as an unhappy sign of a Godson who is likely to jump ship. And Mr. Fubara is not your normal political surrogate in terms of credentials. Before Mr. Wike shoe-horned him into the Government House in Port Harcourt, he was the State’s Accountant-General. He was the custodian of state finances for the eight years that Mr. Wike was imperial governor of Rivers State.
Now having lost his gubernatorial immunity, Mr. Wike desperately needs Mr. Fubara’s support to sleep better at night. His nervousness in the present circumstances is therefore understandable.
He has let it be known that he is primarily concerned about the security of his political base. This fear is indeed founded on clear and present vulnerabilities.
Love him or hate him, Mr. Nyesom Wike is a totalitarian politician. He leaves his adversaries no elbow room or accommodation. He has used his scorched earth political method to take total control of the Rivers state political landscape.
Although a member of the opposition PDP, Mr. Wike has used his political sagacity to straddle the terrains of both his own party and the ruling APC. He installed the governor, controls majority of the state House of Assembly, produced all three senators representing the state, produced most of the six House of Representatives members representing the state in Abuja. He controls all chairmen and majority councilors of all 23 local governments in the state. This is clearly an expansive and impressive political empire and base.
In some fairness, any single political actor who is able to gain such total control of the political machinery of an entire state deserves some acknowledgment. Politics is first local! We may not like Mr. Wike’s uncouth methods or his undemocratic ways. But he seems to speak the Nigerian political language that connects to his constituency. He is Machiavellian in a rather crude sense of placing the end on the negotiating table before unleashing the crude means at his disposal. He has a clear definition of his political ends and deploys whatever is available to achieve that end. The end begins and ends from one point: Nyesom Wike. Other politicians with a moral slant may find him and his methods unusual and devilish but it works for him. He insists he is a politicians, not a clergyman though the son of an active Pentecostal clergyman!
In short form, Mr. Wike is essentially an imperial politician. He ruled Rivers state like an emperor, dominating not only his government but also the entire political universe of the state. He abused and insulted his predecessor, hounded his former associates even within the PDP, destabilized the PDP at the national level, burnt or demolished the properties of politicians who disagreed with or opposed his political interests. Where and when he deemed fit, Mr. Wike cajoled, threatened, ‘bought’ supporters or starved his adversaries of patronage and pork. In a sense, he personifies the essence of a rising imperial school of politics in Nigeria’s frail democracy.
Incidentally, the Wike school of imperial politics seems to have found traction with the new Tinubu presidency. The president has openly acknowledged and embraced Mr. Wike as not only “a prime minister” but a valued political ‘adviser’ of sorts.
A few months ago, before President Tinubu began nominating his future ministers, this reporter cautioned against brining the Wike type of baggage into the new federal cabinet: “He comes with a baggage full of a wild pedigree of serial political betrayals, disruptive behavior, uncouth manners, exhibitionism and controversies…” Having to play umpire in a political brawl between Mr. Wike and the political leadership of his home state is perhaps the least distraction that President Tinubu should expect from his choice of Mr. Wike. Other inconveniences may follow, including having to fend off Wike’s fiendish political ambition as a threat to his own political longevity.
As for the concerned elders of Rivers state, engagement with a long drawn confrontation between Mr. Wike and Governor Fubara promises to be a long undertaking. Future episodes, which are not far away, may not be resolved so quickly.
As for Mr. Wike himself, the future of his relationship with the governor as his political God son promises to teach him a few home lessons about surrogates and power incumbency. Mr. Fubara may seem meek and pliable but he is in power and authority in Rivers state today. It may not be so easy to wrest him from that position of strength. He can only get stronger and grow his followership in the state. The governor is the present custodian of what Wike values so highly, namely, his political base. The governor is in charge of the local governments, the political parties in the state and can take control of the entire State House of Assembly at will. Above all, the Governor has immunity which Mr. Wike has lost. Yet these vulnerabilities do not necessarily make Mr. Wike an easy political adversary to neutralise. He will wage a bloody fight every inch of the way.
As for the young governor, the incident that took place last week is merely a dress rehearsal of what lies ahead. I was struck with pity when after his Abuja meeting with Mr. Wike, the governor naively described his brief brush with Wike as “a father and son” disagreement! What Emperor Wike just did with the simulated crisis of last week is merely an inoculation battle to test the waters. The Emperor merely looked in to get a sneak preview of the future battlefield.
From his response, the governor has failed an elementary rule of the power game. The rule is simple: When a Godfather as lethal as Mr. Wike becomes a political adversary, you do not just scorch the snake. You decapitate it.